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Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective


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If an observer were to evaluate the effectiveness of women's organisations in Guam by their number, goal and scope, and wide-ranging membership, the impression created by approximately 75 women's organisations in Guam, representing the diverse ethnic, professional, religious, philanthropic, cultural and military segments of the island community, would be misleading. There are three federations or umbrella women's organisations with which 98 per cent of all women's organisations are affiliated. The 75 women's organisations are affiliated to one of the three umbrella organisations or federations.

The Guam Council of Women's Clubs was formed in 1982, by the First Lady of Guam at the time, to promote friendship and fellowship among the women in Guam. The two other federations boast a predominantly Chamorro membership. The Confraternity of Christian Mothers is comprised of chapters of each of the 19 Catholic parishes in Guam. Guam is divided into 19 villages; each village with a parish and in each parish has a Christian Mothers' Association which is affiliated to the Confraternity. Established at the turn of this century, its objective is to encourage the development of “Christian home education, children and truly Christian mothers”. The women of Guam, if they join any organisation, will usually start with membership in the Christian Mothers Association in their Parish. Those who are active organisers in the community have frequently attributed their personal growth and development as organisers, to their membership in the Confraternity of Christian Mothers.

Black and white print - pacific design.

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The Federation of Chamorro* Women's Organisations

The Federation of Chamorro Women's Associations is analysed here. This umbrella organisation is chosen for several reasons. Its membership consists of grassroots Chamorro women representing a wide cross-section of villagers and it draws women from all socio-economic strata, age groups and occupations, including housewives and the unemployed. In addition, the Federation was a product of the UN Decade for Women.

Its founder, Lagrimas Aflague laid the groundwork for the Federation in 1980 by convening a board of trustees to develop a constitution and by-laws to set organisation objectives and to assist in organising district clubs. She stated that her reason for initiating the Federation was simply that there were many community needs which should be addressed. This woman took it upon herself to establish a Federation because she identified the need and then convened a board of trustees, before the actual member affiliates were established. The Federation came into existence before district clubs were created which gave legitimacy to the Federation.

More importantly, the Federation's founder believed Chamorro women needed a non-sectarian and non-partisan organisation to which they could belong. Her interest in later Federation projects also was a strong motivation for organising; two of her projects have become major projects of the Federation.

Eight District Clubs have been established in the last seven years, using an organisational structure patterned after the Federation. These clubs meet monthly and charge $14 annual membership dues, $2 of which goes to the Federation as an individual membership assessment. Only Chamorro members can be full voting members but women of other ethnicities can be associate members though they cannot vote, nor can they hold office. Meetings are conducted in the Chamorro page 53 language. In no other official situation is Chamorro used in the fashion that the Chamorro Women's Association uses the indigenous language to conduct its business. The Clubs embark on projects in the villages.

There are approximately 300 voting members in the Federation. These seemingly ordinary facts represent a bold step: Chamorros' clubs are very organised, and are accused of being discriminatory. The same principle, however, does not apply to other ethnic organisations on Guam. Anybody who has been to Guam will know that there is a proliferation of Filipino Women's organisations representing every province in the Philippines, Micronesian Women's Organisation representing various island groups of Micronesia, and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean women's organisations. But when Chamorro women organised, it was automatically considered a discriminatory act against other ethnic groups.

The Chamorro identity is one of the Federation's most notable contributions. The Federation is financially self-sustaining. It sponsors bingo games three times a week for fundraising and nets approximately $15,000 (US) a month. This is used to support its projects and selected charities; it is a wealthy organisation. The money raised is used to support its projects and selected charities. This year, members decided to donate to the American Red Cross, the Cancer Society, the Heart Association and, most significantly, to the Hospital Volunteers Association for the purchase of a machine. When women are suspected of having breast cancer, or have any kind of a shadow on an x-ray, they have to go to Hawaii to get a mammograph, or they are operated on without knowing whether it is a cancerous growth. The purchase of that machine cost about $150,000 and all the women's organisations are collecting funds for it. They also donated to a new organisation trying to assist abused and handicapped persons, and to provide a shelter for battered wives.

The Federation also helps individual members who are in need. It acts as a kind of life insurance policy - if members have a family crisis, they can go to the association for funding, much in the way that an extended family works. A recent example is of page 54 a member whose home was destroyed by fire. The Federation gave her $1,000 to relocate her family and she was able to pay three months rent with that money.

Black and white drawing of three pacific women.

The bulk of the funds are earmarked for two on-going projects - that is, Miss Cinderella Scholarship Programme and the Civic Centre Building Fund. These are the two projects that are the pet projects of the founder.

One of the nine objectives identified in the by-laws is a women's centre, to bring about a spirit of cooperation among the Chamorro women. This objective has served to put women in touch with each other, especially with women whom they would otherwise not have known or had any reason to meet or have contact with. The opportunity to work with the variety of women on projects has extended the social and support networks for many members of the Federation. Whatever motivation for creating the Federation it has served a good purpose for individual members.

On a collective level, the Federation's most successful and visible contributions are community oriented. Most of the energies of its members and almost all its profits from fund-raising activities are channelled to the Federation's two projects. They also assist charities and work with village commissioners. In every village are page 55 municipal governments based on a commissionership, with one commissioner and a municipal council. The organisation does work with the village commissioners especially at the district level (there are eight districts) to assist in problem areas in the village. If the commissioner identifies a problem - for example, the lack of enough trash cans in the village creating a sanitation problem - the Federation will go in and provide trash cans for the village, or raise funds to do so. If there is a high incidence of vandalism in the village, the mothers, through neighbour networking, try to identify the vandals and work with them, redirecting their activities to sports, etc. In the general sense then, the Federation's activities have improved living conditions, both directly in the villages and indirectly, through its monetary contributions to other charities.

In the other areas of interest to this workshop, however, the reality is painful. An evaluation of women's organisations in Guam today, and in the past decade, would lead to one conclusion: while development and feminism as concepts many appear, albeit rarely, in organisational literature and sometimes surface in discussions, no substantial contributions to the understanding of either “development” or “feminism” have been made. A major problem is that women's organisations become too involved with project detail and forget to look at the big picture. That is something that was raised this morning in the discussion on feminism and is a constant problem needing attention.

However, women's organisations in Guam, including the Federation of Chamorro Women's Association, have had a better performance record in raising the standards of individual women, as distinct from improving the status of women collectively. The Federation does not identify improved status as a specific organisational goal. Consequently, club activities are not planned to foster the innovation or improvement in the status of women. Nevertheless, the Federation has had a positive impact on many of its members. A number of Chamorro women who have joined the Federation, but were never involved in organising all before, had not felt comfortable joining other women's organisations because of the predominance of non- page 56 Chamorros who usually assumed leadership roles and make Chamorro women feel inadequate or inferior. Sometimes a preoccupation with organisational skills which define leadership ability is overemphasised and if some women do not appear to have these skills, they are never asked to become a member of any organisation. This attitude prevents Chamorro women from wanting to join other organisations.

Because the Federation is comprised of Chamorro membership, the environment of the organisation itself and of its meetings, attracts women who would otherwise not think of joining. Women are encouraged to contribute to decision-making; they ask everybody's opinion about issues, so, women are actually encouraged to formulate opinions when they have never even been asked before.

By taking on these responsibilities and organising activities in their organisation, women are strengthening skills that they use both in the home and at the work place, if they are employed. They also acquire new organisational skills. Members who were previously shy and self-evasive are slowly changing, and are developing a confidence and pride in the discovery that they do have talents, and that these talents can benefit the community. It is too early to tell whether this new cadre of organisers, who are working alongside the more seasoned women leaders, will become more active in the public sphere or whether they will confine their involvement to the Federation and its activities.

Key Leadership Positions in the Federation

The key organisers in the Federation are successful women who are relatively secure and comfortable with their positions in society. This serves as a distinct disadvantage or barrier. What frequently results is the “What you are talking about?” syndrome. When questioned about what they have done to improve the status of women in Guam, a typical response is “Oh, we don't need to be liberated, we are okay the way we are”. This is a classic example of a singular application of the feminist principle “personal is political”, - meaning, women feel that if they are okay, page 57 then everybody else should be okay too. And if they are not, then it's their problem. That application of the feminist principle, “personal is political”, only to one's own experience therefore can be very limiting and self-centred, and is counter-productive to a collective improvement of the status of women. This is not done deliberately, by these women at the top. It is an unconscious discrimination against other women in less powerful positions. There is a need to recognise this problem: personal success and satisfaction often lead to complacency and inability to relate to the lot of other women in Guam, whose reality is quite oppressive. This discollectiveness with the collective sense of reality, is evident in the same way individuals view indigenous issues like self-determination and development. Some people think if they are successful in their own little businesses, then there are no economic restrictions affecting Chamorro people from growing economically. Dis-collectiveness is a real problem.

Returning to the Federation, it has the potential to become a thinking and nurturing environment in which women can assess their issues and ultimately grow with each other in a collective understanding of development and feminism. There are barriers that must be overcome: one of the most difficult is attitude. If women can overcome the battle of attitude, they will have won the war. The big question is how to germinate the necessary levels of consciousness and awareness in women leaders, organisers or activists, to direct the energy and power at their disposal towards the Pacific female vision of justice that we have gathered here together to understand and define. I hope we will come close to doing so in the next few days.

Questions and Answers

Q: What is meant by Chamorro?

A: Chamorro people, Chamorro language, Chamorro culture is the indigenous culture of Guam.

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Q: What does that mean in terms of population?

A: The Chamorro are a minority in their own country and in their own nation. They are threatened and put under great duress when they claim to be a “nation”. There are more Chamorros in the United States than there are in Guam; the same situation as American Samoa. Chamorros call themselves Guamanians. Guam was colonised first by Spain and then by America; it had 400 years of Spanish colonisation before American colonisation. The US gained Guam as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Q: What percentage of the Chamorro people speak their language?

A: It is relative to age. All children are now learning Chamorro in school. The younger children are learning to actually read and write and speak Chamorro. My age group - 37 - is really a threshold age group in the sense that when we were growing up it was good to speak Chamorro, but at the time that we were in school, there was a very strong movement against the teaching and speaking of Chamorro because it was felt that it would diminish our capacity for learning in English. Parents became very scared that if their children could not learn and succeed in English, they would not succeed at all in society. So, there was a very pronounced movement in the 1960s to erase Chamorro altogether from the public sphere. We were actually fined if we spoke a Chamorro word. All my lunch money and recess money was always put into this fine, as was everyone else's. If you could not pay the fine, you had to work after school, cleaning the school. Imagine what that can do to the psychology of a child… Anything Chamorro was then considered backward, anything traditional was backward. The idea was to try to urbanise the Chamorro and make the culture disappear.

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Now, because of revival efforts, Chamorro is becoming a very exciting language. We are exploring new ways to express the new things that are happening that we have no words for. We are actually creating and adding on to the language.

Black and white photograph of a beach.

* ‘Chamorro’ represents the indigenous language and people of Guam.